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American Ballet Theatre Celebrates 75 Years at Lincoln Center
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American Ballet Theatre Celebrates 75 Years at Lincoln Center

Picture of Patricia Contino
Updated: 12 December 2015
American Ballet Theatre recently concluded its 75th anniversary season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The occasion got rare television time with a glossy PBS documentary and dancers providing clues on Jeopardy! There was also transition and celebration: beloved ballerinas Paloma Herrara, Xiomara Reyes, and Julie Kent retired, and were followed by the anticipated arrival of principal dancers Stella Abrera and Misty Copeland. The onstage festivities included a new production of The Sleeping Beauty and return of their 2014 Cinderella.
Isabella Boylston and Joseph Gorak in The Sleeping Beauty
© Rosalie O’Connor

Sleeping Beauty was an appropriate choice for ABT to mark its diamond anniversary. Tchaikovsky’s symphonic score accompanies three acts of parties, magic and true love. The ballet has a prominent place in dance history, which ABT’s revelatory new production now joins: The 1921 Ballet’s Russes’ production (one the few classics performed by a company who created their own classics) properly introduced the ballet to London. In 1949, The Royal Ballet brought Beauty along with Moira Sheerer and Margot Fonteyn on their first American tour. New York City Ballet’s 1991 production was their first major post-Balanchine undertaking. Balanchine decided on ballet as a career when he performed it as a child in Saint Petersburg.

Instead of creating new dances, ABT’s Artist-in-Residence Alexi Ratmansky re-created Marius Petipa’s 1890 original choreography transcribed in an idiosyncratic dance notation housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library. What he discovered is anything but old-fashioned. Petipa’s intricate steps and the technique, speed and talent required for executing them continue to challenge dancers.

Petipa knew how to create a memorable stage picture. The “Garland Dance” opening Aurora’s birthday party is a series of balancés, a waltz step with feet alternating back and front with arms waving either side-to-side or overhead. The corps-de-ballet repeats this same step in different directions and groupings while holding potted flowers or garland wreaths. The music may be familiar from the 1959 Disney cartoon, but it is beautiful new creation suited for contemporary stages.

Himself a great choreographer, Ratmansky paid attention to every detail, particularly mime.The Bolshoi-trained Ratmansky has a long association with The Royal Danish Ballet, where mime is essential in the ballets of August Bournonville. Now usually truncated, it worked here because of the rehearsal time taken to master it. It is hoped that ABT will maintain the high performance standards set in this first run.

Scene from The Sleeping Beauty
© Gene Schiavone

That Richard Hudson’s costumes reflect 100 years before and after Aurora’s long sleep is an understatement. The court first resembles Louis XIV’s where ballet was born. One act and a century later, courtiers dressed elaborately in outfits copied off of Gainsborough portraits. Fairies favored lacey styles similar to their sister sylphs in Georges Melies’s silent film fantasies. Tutus worn by the quartet of bejeweled fairies opening Act III’s wedding festivities were variations of one worn by the great Cynthia Gregory in ABT’s 1976 production of Petipa’s Raymonda.

The third cast was strong. Joseph Gorak made a cute, attentive Prince Désiré. Christine Shevchenko made a glamourous Lilac Fairy in a role that is essentially a no-nonsense gatekeeper. Her nemesis Carabosse was an unrecognizable Marcelo Gomes. Wearing a mask, grey wig, long fingernails and a black gown decorated with silver moons, he had a blast making trouble with his four rat attendants.

Both of ABT’s new principal ballerinas danced featured roles. Stella Abrera’s fairy godmother bestowed baby Aurora with Temperament by running excitedly across the stage en pointe while pretending to play the flute. Tchaikovsky’s music is fast and silly, and she embraced both aspects of it.

Misty Copeland sparkled as both a fairy godmother and one of the Bluebird wedding guests. Gabe Stone Shayer joined her for the famous Bluebird pas de deux filled with high jumps. Tchaikovsky’s music again makes use of the solo flute, required here to imitate bird song.

Isabella Boylston was a beautiful Aurora. Her balances, jumps and overall technique were breathtaking. At both her birthday party and wedding that follows she acted like an excited teenager. During Act I’s “Rose Adagio,” after being presented with a rose by four princely suitors and holding an extended balance for each, she ran to the front of the stage as if to say, “can you believe this?”

Gillian Murphy in Cinderella
© Gene Schiavone

Frederick Ashton (1904–88) studied with several Ballets Russes alumni. One of the founders of The Royal Ballet, his ballets are woefully underperformed – The Royal only brought The Dream on their recent tour – but ABT ended their anniversary season with his 1948 Cinderella.

Like Tchaikovsky, Sergei Prokofiev’s score is far from a sound cue for dancers to mark steps. It is sophisticated and sensuous. His music establishes the mood in Cinderella’s (Gillian Murphy) home, her Fairy Godmother’s (Isabella Boylston) star-lit court (the transformed backyard) and the Prince’s (Alexandre Hammoudi) ball. Ashton further emphasizes the musical fantasy from reality during the Act II ball. Guests open the ball with formal social dances. Cinderella’s arrival, announced in the strings, is appropriately mysterious. Every dancer moves as if under a spell – except for Cinderella, who descends the eight stairs leading to the ballroom regally while never coming off pointe. At the beginning of Act III, attendees leave the ball in front of a curtain with the clock on the midnight hour creating a small comedy of manners: Cinderella is understandably in a rush. The Prince is in pursuit. Couples argue or embrace.

The Fairy Godmother does not attend the ball. She sends four lieutenant fairies representing the seasons and 12 attendants symbolizing Cinderella’s deadline. Isabella Boylston was not above having fairy dust thrown on her every entrance or tossing the pumpkin into wings that transforms into a coach. The solo introducing herself to Cinderella gorgeously embodied the Cinderella story. Time is of the essence, but nothing can go forward without her.

Thomas Forster and Kenneth Easter as the Step-Sisters in Cinderella
© Gene Schiavone

Ashton’s Cinderella is also gentler than other adaptations. Cinderella still does all the housework while her stepsisters (Kenneth Easter, Thomas Forster) are ladies of leisure. The two sisters bicker between themselves more than with their underdog half-sister. Ashton incorporated panto in other ballets but never better than here. The two oversized, clumsy, silly girls steal every scene. They even find potential boyfriends at the ball. The sweetest moment isn’t when the sequined ballet slipper fits, but rather when Cinderella forgives her sisters by kissing each on the forehead.

The stepsisters never notice Cinderella observing their dance lesson. When they go off preparing for the ball, she repeats the steps flawlessly with her broom substituting as a partner. At the ball, she demonstrates the same steps ending with a series of pirouettes. There is no turn that Gillian Murphy cannot execute. The faster the music, the more she is in control.

American Ballet Theatre continues its anniversary, returning to the New York area in the fall at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College and Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center.